Arancini are hands-down my favorite food. Have you ever tried them? They’re balls of risotto, stuffed with tomato sauce & mozzarella, breaded and deep-fried to a crisp, golden brown. Definitely not an every day food. The prep will take up most of your day, and it’s best to make them when the weather is nice enough to throw the windows open (or else prepare yourself for a house that smells like fried food for a solid week).
For reasons I can’t understand, arancini are almost impossible to find in restaurants here in Kansas. And the prospect of only eating them once a year, when we visit our family in Italy, is completely depressing. We had tossed around the idea of making them at home for the past year, but we just kept putting it off. I’ll be the first to admit, making arancini is intimidating. It takes a bit of planning. You don’t want to have to run to the grocery store in the middle of the process because you realize you don’t have any eggs or you ran out of oil.
But yesterday, we finally made our arancini. In hindsight, I realize we took kind of a ballsy approach to this by not consulting a recipe. Or my mother-in-law (her arancini are famous in the family). Arancini is really more of a method than a recipe, but you do need to know how to make risotto, and we also made a simple ragu.
The risotto needs to be “leftover”…we made ours in the morning and let it sit, covered, on the stove for the rest of the day. We started with 2 cups of dried arborio rice, and this was way too much. We ended up eating risotto for lunch AND had enough leftover to make 12 medium-sized arancini. Arancini are typically made with very plain risotto. We flavored ours with just saffron ($5 for 1/2 a gram at World Market! Don’t pay $20 for it at the grocery store!). We also added nutmeg and Italian herbs to our tomato sauce. Here’s a good rule of thumb when it comes to flavoring your arancini: seasonings added to the rice or the breadcrumbs are more pronounced, while seasonings added to the sauce are much more subtle.
(I keep saying “we” made the risotto, but here’s the truth: I sat back and drank a glass of pinot grigio–at 11:30 in the morning–while Flavio cooked the rice.)
For the sauce, we pureed a can of crushed tomatoes and then added a small can of tomato sauce. I added this tomato-y goodness to a pan of sauteed minced onion and 1/2 lb. ground beef. You could use plain tomato sauce or add whatever vegetables you like to it (my MIL usually adds peas). You can even use jarred sauce, as long as it’s not too chunky. It’s important to let the sauce cool for a little while before you assemble the arancini, or else you run the risk of burning your hands. While the sauce is cooling, it’s a good opportunity to wash the dishes. We have a pretty small kitchen, and we needed what little counter space we have to assemble the arancini.
Alright! You’ve got your rice, you’ve got your sauce, now you’re ready to make your arancini. The method I’m sharing here is the one that I learned from watching my mother-in-law. She makes baseball-sized arancini, and I really don’t understand how they don’t fall apart during frying (decades of practice, plus a little bit of magic, I’m guessing). The only arancini I’ve come across in restaurants are golf ball-sized. Mine came out somewhere in the middle.
Before you can begin, you need to set up your stations. It really helps to have 2 people: one to form the balls, the other to coat them in egg and breadcrumbs. I also recommend making all of your arancini before frying them. I wouldn’t even start heating the oil until you finish forming the arancini, because forming them requires some practice and will take longer than you anticipate. It’s important to keep a bowl of water handy for rinsing your hands between arancini. Wet hands are the key to forming balls that hold together. Obviously, it’s better to prepare these in a place where the forming station and the breading station don’t have such a big gap between them. If you have that much continuous counter space, congratulations. I kind of hate you.
Place a good spoonful of risotto in your (wet) left hand, and flatten it to about 1/4-inch, making an indent in the middle with your thumb. Make sure the rice is patted firm in your hand. If it’s too loose, your arancini will fall apart during frying.
Spoon a little bit of sauce into the indent, and add a couple cubes of fresh mozzarella. Use less than you think you should. Too much sauce will make it difficult to seal the ball, and it may leak out during frying.
In your (wet) right hand, form another circle of rice of about equal size to the one in your left hand. Place it over the sauce & cheese, and press the seam together. Add small bits of rice to close the seam or cover thin patches, if necessary. Make sure that the rice is packed firm all over the ball. One way to check is to gently pass the ball back & forth between your hands. If it’s too loose, you’ll be able to tell!
Coat the ball in eggs (we used 3 beaten eggs here) and then breadcrumbs (we used seasoned, although plain are probably more traditional), and set aside on a foil-lined baking sheet.
After you’ve formed and breaded all of your arancini, you’re ready to fry. We filled a cast iron dutch oven with enough vegetable oil to cover the arancini. Heat the oil over medium-high. Rather than measuring the temperature of the oil, Flavio just dropped in a few breadcrumbs–the oil was ready when the breadcrumbs bubbled and floated to the top of the oil. He also suggests that arancini fry better when the oil is “dirty”–that is, there are breadcrumbs in the oil. We were able to fit 4 arancini in our pot at a time. It’s important that they don’t touch each other while frying. Frying takes 5-10 minutes per batch. Keep an eye on both the temperature of the oil and the browning of the arancini. If the oil is too hot, the arancini will burn. If it’s too cold, the arancini will take too long to brown, and absorb too much oil in the process. It’s normal for some of your arancini to break during frying. By some miracle, none of ours actually broke apart, although the mozzarella seeped out of a couple.
Once the arancini are nice and golden brown, remove them from the oil and drain on paper towels. We were actually running out of paper towels (weird, since we rarely use them), so I put a section of newspaper underneath one layer of paper towels. This worked really well! We loosely tented the finished arancini with foil while the remaining batches were frying, to keep them warm.
Finally, it’s time to eat! You can eat them with a fork & knife, or you can pick them up and eat them out of hand. Be careful with that first bite, though–arancini are very hot in the center. It’s normal for some steam to escape when you first cut into them.
Now, wasn’t that worth a full day in the kitchen?
Quantities (makes about 12 medium-sized arancini):
- about 2 cups of leftover risotto
- less than 1/2 cup tomato sauce (plain, or with meat/vegetables)
- a couple ounces of fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten
- about 1 cup of breadcrumbs (plain or seasoned)
- up to 1/2 gallon vegetable or other frying oil (enough to cover the arancini)